Johnny Cash’s first big hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he went on to be one of the biggest names in Country music, and Rock and Roll, for the next ten years. But by the late 60s Cash’s career was on the slippery down slope. He was having an open affair with fellow performer June Carter. He was addicted to pain killers and had been arrested for trespassing and drug trafficking. He was the worst sort of live performer who routinely missed concert dates, and because of his addiction was usually too bombed out of his mind to perform when he didn’t miss. His outlaw persona was catching up with him. By the end of 1967, he was one failed album away from just becoming another casualty to the Rock and Roll lifestyle.
He earlier decided to record a live album at the prison whose name launched his career, Folsom County Prison just outside Sacramento, California. Cash had played prisons before, and had even played Folsom before, but this would be the first time he’d record a live album while doing so. This would also be the first time he would be sober for the performance. On New Year’s 1968, Cash vowed to turn his life around, if only for June and his children’s sakes. And “At Folsom Prison” would be his comeback, both professionally and personally.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With these words, two thousand hardened inmates of Folsom County Prison jumped up to wild applause as if they were high school kids at the year’s big concert event. Cash’s clean and sober performance was his best in years. Cash ended the performance by unexpectedly playing a song “Greystone Chapel”, written by one of the inmates.
Only two reporters accompanied Cash inside the prison to cover the event because most of the media had already dismissed Cash as a has-been, and one of whom was hired by Cash to document the event for the album sleeve. They witnessed the rebirth of a star and they’re still receiving royalties for their photographs to this day. At Folsom Prison is easily Cash’s best live performance and arguably one of the best live albums ever.
At Folsom Prison was released just four months later and resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. The clean and sober Johnny Cash learned to cultivate his outlaw status without it killing him. He would eventually divorce his wife and marry June Carter. Cash would become a leading advocate for prison reform in the United States and eventually testify to Congress in 1978.
America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.
The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it
In late 1966, The Doors were an opening band at the Whiskey A Go Go for bigger LA acts such as the Byrds and Them (with a young Van Morrison). In January 1967, they released their self titled debut album, but it really didn’t go anywhere due to suggestive and “obscene” lyrics, drug references , and song length. But the album was a hit with the counterculture movement and the underground psychedelic scene. Their first single release off the album, “Break On Through” was a flop (!??!?!?) but the much longer “Light My Fire” kept getting radio airplay requests. However, at 7:06, it was far too long to play over the radio.
On 3 June 1967, The Doors released a shortened three minute version for use on the radio. This shorter version of Light My Fire catapulted The Doors onto the national music scene. They’d be asked to play the song on the Ed Sullivan show with adjusted lyrics for “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” The Doors agreed and even rehearsed the new line. But when the time came, Jim Morrison sang the original line on national TV, and after the show lost their contract with the producers. The Doors didn’t care – They “did Sullivan”. Light My Fire dominated the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”.
Like every other rock band during the British Invasion era, the band “Earth” started as a blues tribute garage rock band. But after being double booked with another band of the same name, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Ozbourne decided to change their name to “Black Sabbath” after the Boris Karlov flick that was playing across the street from one of their rehearsals.
Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album in early 1970. It was a commercial success but critics hated it. BS found their niche in the darker themes reminiscent of Karlov’s movies and “stupid melodies” that were quite different than the flower power and hippie music that dominated the charts. In the fall of 1970, Black Sabbath went back to the studio to record the songs that they didn’t get a chance to for their first album.
They had just two days to record and one to mix. At the end of the second day, their album “War Pigs” was finished. However, their producer said they needed another three minutes of music. Iommi quickly came up with a riff, Ozbourne some angsty and depressing lyrics, and Butler called it “Paranoid”, which Ozbourne replied, “What the f**k does that even mean?” “Paranoid” took 25 minutes to record from request to final cut.
With the “counter culture” mainstream, Black Sabbath didn’t want the anti Vietnam song War Pigs to headline the album lest it get lost in all of the other aforementioned flower power music on the charts. They decided to name it after the shortest song on the album and the one most likely to get radio time: the afterthought, Paranoid.
Paranoid released in Oct 1970 in the UK, but it’s the release in the US on 7 January 1971 that changed the world. Like before, critics hated it, and it received near zero radio time. But the generation of resentful kids who were just then coming of age and beginning to realize they missed the crazy days of the swinging late sixties that their big brothers and sisters experienced, absolutely loved it. Most of the combat troops left Vietnam, the draft was winding down, and the economy began to stagnate, so what did it all mean? The world of Paranoid provided a glimpse of the answer. (And it helped that the songs were simple to enough to inspire a new generation of band members to pick up instruments and emulate them.)
Most of Black Sabbath’s signature songs appeared on the album. These included Paranoid, War Pigs, and one fantastical story of a future traveller who saw the end of the world but was turned to metal by a magnetic field on his return. The Iron Man then brought about the very apocalypse he warned against when his people wouldn’t believe him.
And Heavy Metal was born. \m/